Joseph Joachim Raff was easily the greatest German-speaking composer of symphonies in the years between Schumann's last and Brahms' first. It's surprising, then, that this 2010 Tudor set of his 11 symphonies performed by Hans Stadlmair and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra is the first complete cycle of the works ever undertaken by a single conductor and orchestra. It is also only the second complete set of Raff's symphonies ever recorded, and includes only the second recording of some of the works.
The lack of more recordings becomes blindingly apparent almost immediately after one starts listening. Raff, while clearly a talented, skillful, and industrious composer, was by no means an original, much less a great, composer. Though he died relatively young at 60, Raff left 214 works with opus numbers and quite a few more without opus numbers, an output almost without parallel in 19th century music. These 11 symphonies are well-written works with attractive themes, methodical developments, and carefully planned effects, but they could not be described as original. Raff relies too much on Mendelssohnian scherzos and Schumannesque andantes, and his opening and closing allegros are far too indebted to Liszt's less imaginative tone poems in their bald depictions and bland descriptions. Most of the symphonies are in four movements (though many are in five), most have programmatic titles (though the ones that do not still sound programmatic), and most are positive in outlook (though some are quite tragic in tone). But after listening to two or three of Raff's symphonies in a row, a certain sameness sets in, not the sameness of a consistent and individual compositional voice, but the sameness of lack of inspiration. Raff never sounds like himself, but always like an inferior imitation of a better composer.
Dedicated fans of 19th century German Romantic symphonies shouldn't be without at least one recording of these works, and that recording ought to be Bernard Herrmann's classic 1970 account of Symphony No. 5, "Lenore," with the London Philharmonic. Deeply dedicated fans of the genre who want to hear them all should be interested in this set. Stadlmair does everything a conscientious conductor can do for this music; he leans into the picturesque effects, shines up the orchestral colors, amps up the climaxes, and takes great care to hold the structures together. The Bamberg Symphony plays with provincial skill and integrity -- that is, with somewhat less skill than most international orchestras but also with somewhat more integrity -- and if the musicians do not know and love the music on their stands, it never shows in their playing. Tudor's digital sound is rich, ripe, and full of warmth.